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Author Umino Tsunami Portrays Marriage as a Career in “Nigehaji”

The manga Nigeru wa haji da ga yaku ni tatsu achieved widespread popularity when TBS aired it as a TV drama series in 2017. We asked the author, Umino Tsunami, about the new paradigm for marriage she sets forth in the series and how people have reacted to it.

“Contract Marriage”

The protagonist Moriyama Mikuri of Nigeru wa haji da ga yaku ni tatsu (The Fulltime Wife Escapist; often shortened to Nigehaji) possesses what seem like highly marketable traits—a graduate degree and certification as a clinical psychologist—but remains unemployed. She secures a job with a temporary staffing agency only to be laid off and left stranded, a 25-year old woman with no prospects for a career. The story is set in 2012, when jobs were scarce in Japan and large companies would only hire new college graduates. Mikuri’s plight, then far from unusual, represents the situation of Japanese women workers even today.

Mikuri finally, with the help of her father, gets a job as a housecleaner. Her employer is Tsuzaki Hiramasa, a graduate of the prestigious Kyoto University and a systems engineer, a 36-year old virgin who shows little emotion, rejects unnecessary interference in his life, and examines everything with a detached logic. He is, in other words, a typical professional bachelor, a very real and common type in contemporary Japan.

If she is going to be a housekeeper, she will be the best there is, decides Mikuri, and she throws herself into her job with a fierce zeal for perfection. Hiramasa is impressed; gradually a bond of trust is forged between the two. One day, however, Mikuri’s parents announce that they are moving to the countryside. Left to her own devices without a place to call home, Mikuri plots a desperate plan to get Hiramasa to allow her to switch to being a live-in housekeeper. To overcome the stigma that would ensue if she just moved into a bachelor’s apartment, Mikuri proposes the two enter into a “contract marriage” in which Hiramasa will “employ” Mikuri directly as his “wife” and will pay her for doing the laundry, cleaning, and preparing his meals. (In the TV drama, Hiramasa pays Mikuri a monthly “salary” of ¥194,000). Their marriage will not be registered, and they must sleep in separate beds. A bit confused but overwhelmed by Mikuri’s fervent appeal, Hiramasa agrees to the strange arrangement. As the story continues through a series of episodes, what was once a clear-cut employer-employee relationship gradually morphs into a joint partnership of two CEOs.

Mikuri explains her idea of a “contract marriage”—not simple cohabitation, but something with various benefits for Hiramasa. (© Umino Tsunami/Kōdansha)

We asked Umino Tsunami where she got the idea of a “contract marriage.”

“It just seemed to me that marriage works better if you think of it as a job rather than as being in love. When two people are in love, they hold certain expectations of each other, and before they know it, they’re compelled to take on the roles that society has assigned to them. You’re supposed to be a mind-reader of sorts, knowing what to do without your partner having to tell you—but never going too far, to avoid being scolded for overstepping boundaries. You get stuck in a rut, too afraid to complain. The result is that you never talk things through.

“But if you think of marriage as a job, you can be more businesslike in your approach. People have been made to think that marriage should be romantic, full of love, but I wonder about that. Just think, for example, about your best friend. Maybe that person was someone who just happened to sit near you in school. You became friends, and your friendship has continued for 30 years. There’s no reason marriage can’t be like that. You meet, you like each other, you start living together, and over time a kind of love grows between you. That kind of approach opens up so many more opportunities. These were my thoughts as I was writing Nigehaji. And so many people have said this is precisely the kind of marriage they’d like to have.”

An Exploitation of Love

Mikuri’s and Hiramasa’s “contract marriage” is actually not so different than a traditional arranged marriage; Mikuri, after all, meets Hiramasa because her father arranges her position with him. This aspect caught the attention of at least one viewer of the television drama, a woman in her eighties, says Umino.

“This woman told me, ‘Our marriages were like that.’ She said the way the two are so polite with each other reminded her of how married couples behaved with each other when she was young. It’s true, the fact that love is not what brings my two characters together is very much like an arranged marriage.”

There was one part of the drama, however, that this woman objected to, explains Umino. “In the scene were Hiramasa proposes to Mikuri right after he’s been laid off from his job, Mikuri is horrified because she thinks he is only proposing so that he can get out of paying her for doing the housework. She lashes out, saying, ‘What makes you think anything goes if there is love? I absolutely refuse to be exploited by love!’ Older women, like the one who spoke to me, tend to react negatively to the words, ‘exploited by love.’ ‘Why,’ they say, ‘does this young woman object to not being paid? Why is she so greedy? In my day we did everything without ever complaining.’ Actually, there are also some young full-time housewives who raise the same objection. ‘We’re getting along just fine in our marriage,’ they say, ‘Why is the girl so greedy?’ And, well, of course, there are some women with the opposite reaction, who applaud Mikuri’s assertion with glee.”

There was a time when it was considered shameful to expect to be rewarded for dedicating oneself to another. And that sentiment still exists to an extent, even today.

“There’s still an assumption that a good wife takes care of housework and childcare all by herself. I do wish people would be more willing to outsource some of the work—you know, hire a babysitter or a housecleaner. There’s nothing wrong with getting help.”

Wan ope, meaning “one-person operation,” refers to a single employee being expected to handle everything in a shop, such as on the late-night shift in fast food shops. Companies that operate this way are blacklisted as exploiters of labor, but when it comes to the average household, this exploitation is somehow perceived as a virtue. Treating marriage as a job is a way to expose this hypocrisy.

  • [2018.11.21]
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